Decarbonising university building stock with technology

To create an education sector that is both environmentally and economically sustainable and meets net zero targets, action to decarbonise existing building stock will be essential, and university property portfolios are no exception.

In fact, given the built environment is responsible for 19% of the emissions produced by the UK’s higher education sector, it is arguably one of the most significant steps higher education can take to achieve net zero targets.

The challenge ahead

For UK universities, committing to reducing emissions has so far proven challenging. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 59% failed to reduce emissions by a targeted 43% between 2005 and 2021.

Yet over 140 (of the 160+) UK universities have made commitments to combat climate change, including support for the government’s plan to achieve net zero by 2050 at the latest.

The path to net zero may seem daunting, especially as, despite many stakeholders’ hopes to the contrary, it is unlikely electrification by itself will provide an answer anywhere near quickly enough.

But with environmental and regulatory challenges on the horizon – both impacting the market interest of tenants – it is important that key decision makers in universities around the world act now to decarbonise their property portfolios.

Fortunately, what may have once seemed an impenetrable challenge, can be unlocked with technology, and with it, higher education institutions around the world can identify the most efficient and cost-effective ways to decarbonise their existing building stock.

Electrification won’t provide all the answers

Many stakeholders with property portfolios had pinned their hopes on electrification as a shortcut to decarbonisation. After all, the energy sector is rapidly increasing its capability to generate renewable energy, with a recent International Energy Agency report revealing that global additions to renewable power capacity are expected to jump by a third in 2023 alone.

At least in theory, electrifying processes in existing building stock will decarbonise those buildings step-by-step as an increasing percentage of electricity is generated by renewable power sources.

Unfortunately, practically speaking, this will be a tall order; the UK grid’s capacity is already stretched and asking for more power to electrify existing buildings will push it beyond its limits.

The longstanding failure to invest in upgrades to the grid has created a backlog of renewable energy providers waiting for a connection – with reports that some will even be facing up to a decade’s delay.

Regardless of the challenge of electrification, failure to decarbonise will hurt university’s pockets. Economic and environmental pressures on the sector mean that an answer urgently needs to be found. Regulations such as the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standard introduced to improve the environmental performance of the least energy efficient buildings, risks universities being left with stranded assets, unable to rent or sell their properties without significant investment in decarbonisation, unless they take action to decarbonise their existing building stock.

Technological change provides promising alternatives

Possibly the most challenging aspect of decarbonising existing building stock is that there is no single approach that will suit every property. But the complexity of this challenge can be vastly reduced through the use of innovative digital building tools, using parametric and comparative modelling, cloud technology, bespoke analysis and data visualisation.

Parametric tools can generate thousands of different scenarios for improving energy efficiency in a building or across entire portfolios, allowing property owners or managers to identify the most efficient and cost-effective strategy to decarbonise, mapped against their specific goals and budget.

This approach can be particularly beneficial for university estates, with their wide range of building types.

For example, estate managers may need to make decisions that factor in both complex research laboratories and halls of residence. Data tools will enable them to make an informed decision about where they can make the biggest difference across the entire estate rather than having to rely on ‘gut feel’.

Going forward, these digital tools can also be used for continuing analysis. Such analysis will be vital as new regulations and new technologies continue to shape the market, changing the roadmap to net zero. Analysis therefore cannot remain static either if university property managers are to be able to pivot to meet emerging challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.

Moving forward to net zero

In 2021, all members of Universities UK committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035. These aims are closer to becoming reality thanks to innovative tech solutions that can improve the environmental performance of their property portfolios – and by adopting such technologies, universities will go some way to reassuring their students that their places of study are committed to operating sustainably.

With prospective students increasingly expecting universities to meet climate and social requirements, this could create a problem for senior decision makers with underperforming building stock.

Universities may be wary of feeling the squeeze when making essential environmentally friendly decisions, as greener options for buildings can often be more expensive in the short term. But investment now will save an expensive game of catch-up further down the line.

Emily Scoones is Head of Digital Innovation (Buildings) at global engineering, architecture and consultancy organisation Ramboll.